U.S. Expert on World Poverty Speaks at Council, Urges “Clarion Call for Action”

115th General Congregation
November 5, 1964

For its debate on what the Church can and should do about world poverty, the Second Vatican Council brought before it an American layman who has immersed himself in the problem for decades.

James J. Norris, in the flawless Latin of a former classics professor, pictured the specter of hunger-ridden poverty that breeds disease and despair and finds relief only in death.

The white-haired, youthful-appearing president of the International Catholic Migration Commission urged the council to “secure full Catholic participation in the worldwide attack on poverty.”

He described today’s community of nations as “lopsided,” with nations representing 16 percent of the world’s population holding 70 percent of the world’s wealth, and three-quarters of the human race existing “in a state of poverty bordering on or below subsistence level.”

Worse yet, the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer in this single world community, said Norris, who is also assistant to the executive director of Catholic Relief Services-National Catholic Welfare Conference.

“This is a wholly unprecedented historical fact, and it presents the Christian conscience of the Western nations with a challenge,” Norris declared.

He pinpointed this new challenge: “For the first time in history it is accepted as a fact that, given time, they have the means to wipe out poverty in the rest of the world.”

It is meaningless to profess Christianity without remembering that wealth is a trust “and that riches on the scale of the West’s modern riches must be redeemed by generosity,” he asserted.

While a number of agencies — private, governmental, ecclesiastical and international — have been attempting to alleviate poverty in the world, Norris said, the constantly widening gap between the rich and the poor demands now a sustained, realistic, dedicated campaign to bring full Christian activity to bear upon these problems.

“All Christian communions are involved and therefore the opportunity is offered to all to unite in these efforts and bring joint influence to bear to encourage governments to continue and expand their policies for providing capital and technical assistance.

“No other group is likely to have the staying power needed for this long, arduous and often disappointing work,” he continued.

He warned that world poverty will not be eradicated quickly.

“But the goal will be reached if in each wealthy country there is brought into being a strong, committed, well-informed and courageous group of men of good will who are prepared to see world poverty as one of the great central concerns of our time and press steadily and vocally for the policies in aid, in trade and in the transfer of skills that will lessen the widening gap between the rich and the poor.”

Although Norris spoke at an hour when many council Fathers usually step out of the council hall for a cup of coffee and a brief chat, the benches of the vast basilica were full.

The council Fathers listened intently to Norris as he listed some of the human sufferings that are inevitably brought in the wake of dire poverty:

— “A constant gnawing hunger that is never satisfied day or night.”

— “Disease that cannot be cured because there are no medical services.”

— “Illiteracy in lands where the great majority of people cannot read or write.”

— “Slums that breed crime and sin.”

He then spoke of one of the most poignant of tragedies: “Poverty means that a mother looks at her newborn infant knowing that it will probably die before the year is out.”

Norris concluded: “From this ecumenical council could come a clarion call for action which would involve the creation of a structure that would devise the kind of institutions, contacts, forms of cooperation and policy which the Church can adopt to secure full Catholic participation in the worldwide attack on poverty.”

The Fathers applauded loud and long when Norris quoted Pope Paul VI’s Christmas message of last year in Italian: “We make our own the sufferings of the poor. And we hope that this sympathy of ours may itself become capable of enkindling that new love which, through a specially planned economy, will multiply the bread needed to feed the world.”

Norris was the second lay auditor to address a working session of the council. Patrick Keegan of Britain, head of the International Federation of Christian Workers Movements, spoke in English on Oct. 13.

Technically, the address Norris gave was a report on article 24 of the schema on the Church in the modern world. While such reports are officially presented on behalf of the commission which drafted the schema, the mixed commission which drafted this schema passed the Norris report virtually without alteration.

(Expanding later on his suggestion for “a structure that would devise the kind of institutions, contacts, forms of cooperation and policy which the Church can adopt,” Norris said he envisages a central coordinating group for the Church’s national social programs already in existence.

These, he said, would enmesh their work with the predominantly Protestant and Orthodox World Council of Churches and similar organizations.)

Almost as if to take up Norris’ suggestion and make it concrete, Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne, Germany, suggested creation of a general secretariat to coordinate Catholic efforts and maintain contact with international agencies such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization.

Bishops, he said, should engage in such activities “with modesty,” divesting themselves of what he called “triumphal clothing.”

(Norris later said that Cardinal Frings told him he had in mind a secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, which would not only coordinate activity but also exchange information and stimulate research in the war on want.)

Bishop Jean Rupp of Monaco, emphasizing that in his diocese there are lots “of good, honest people nobody has ever heard about,” proceeded to give the council some of the suggestions his people had given him.

Some of them had declared their conviction that there can be no Christian order where hunger reigns. More energy, they had said, should be devoted to uprooting this evil than to denouncing it.

In conjunction with this, Bishop Rupp suggested that the schema emphasize the solidarity of Christians in eradicating evils such as hunger. It should be borne in mind, however, that the word Christian has been so watered down that it tends to lose its meaning, he said.

Bishop Rupp criticized the style of the article as wordy and swollen, too prudent, too diplomatic, too political. He said his criticism could be summed up in a phrase: “too feminine.”

He ended his address: “My children have spoken; I have spoken.”

Bishop Antonio Pildain y Zapiain of the Canary Islands framed the problem in simple terms. Some “apparently Christian” nations are wealthy, he said, while others are deprived of basic necessities. He said the remedy is not communism but a “Christian communitarianism” founded on the rule that in dire necessity all things are in common — the principle of moral theology that a man in dire need may take from the abundance of another. Liberal capitalism detests this principle, he said.

Nobody has the right to luxury while others are in need, he declared. This applies to nations as well as individuals.

Auxiliary Bishop Edward E. Swanstrom of New York, executive director of Catholic Relief Services-National Catholic Welfare Conference, said that as director of the American Bishops’ foreign relief program he has the “privilege of cooperating with many of you in your efforts to assist the poor and afflicted in your areas.”

He said that in his travels through the “misery-scourged corners” of the world he has seen the Biblical story of the rich man Dives and the poor man Lazarus enacted over and over again.

“I saw Lazarus most obviously in a leprous beggar dragged in a cart on a begging journey around the streets of Calcutta,” he said.

“I saw him too in the refugee who had escaped from mainland China in 1961 and who had been caught up and deposited in the Fan Ling transit camp. I went up to this camp and saw thousands of unfortunates who had risked their lives to escape, but were allowed to sit at the gates of the free world for a few days, and then herded into trucks to be returned to China. There was no inn for them in the towns and cities of our Western civilization.”

(Here he seemed to echo a cry of Bishop Rupp against “the scandal of Christian nations which close their doors to immigrants from the poor countries.”)

Bishop Swanstrom declared with Pope Paul VI that the first of the world’s needs is hunger. He said that a great gulf exists between the hungry nations and the well-fed nations which is “clearly in the eternal order,” like the gulf that the Bible speaks of between the souls of Lazarus and Dives.

Bishop Swanstrom asked how, for example, the Church can meet the critical shortage of native priests where decent standards of life and education have not been achieved.

“Poverty, hunger and disease are afflictions as old as man himself. But in our time and in this age there has been a change. Change is not so much in the realities of life, but in the hopes and expectations of the future. If men’s hopes are not obtainable by a peaceful revolution, a violent revolution is inevitable,” he warned.

Bishop Swanstrom said chapter 24 speaks in broad terms of what governments and laymen should do. He urged that it be rewritten “to emphasize also the tremendous responsibility placed upon bishops and priests in our day and age to participate most actively in programs to assist the people of God to raise themselves out of the abyss of poverty and degradation.”

Syro-Malankara Archbishop Gregorios Thangalathil of Trivandrum, India, said that without the basic needs of life, man is forever exposed to the dangers of sin. The problem of hunger has its repercussions in the moral order, he noted.

He pointed to economists who say that every nation that hopes to progress economically must reinvest 12 percent of its national income. But how, he asked, can this be done by nations which have barely enough to live on?

Archbishop Pericle Felici, council secretary general, opened the council business by announcing the death of Bishop Giuseppe Gagnor of Alessandria, Italy.

He said Pope Paul would personally attend the following day’s meeting, which was to take up the schema on the missions before returning to schema 13.

The Pope would sit among the council presidents, he said, not on his special throne.

This would be the first time the Pope had been present at a debate of the Second Vatican Council.

Archbishop Felici also announced the Pope desired to meet all the council Fathers before the end of the session. The bishops would be received in national or linguistic groups, and appointments would be announced regularly in the council hall.

The day’s moderator, Giacomo Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna, Italy, then asked for a standing vote to close debate on schema 13’s article 23. The cloture vote was passed.

Auxiliary Bishop Benitez Avalos of Asuncion, Paraguay, in the name of 105 Latin American bishops, complained that the schema had taken too theoretical an approach to the concrete problems it hopes to help solve. Latin America has one-third of the world’s Catholic population. Its population was 200 million in 1960 and this is expected to triple by the end of the century, he noted. Economically, the annual per capita income in Latin America does not exceed $200, which is about 10 percent of that of more productive countries. The economy suffers from a lack of capital and bad distribution of the means of production, he pointed out. These countries are too dependent upon the richer nations. For years Latin America has had no middle class, and this has meant certain torpor among the lower classes, which need to be roused to a desire for self-betterment, he said.

On the political plane, most nations are ruled by oligarchies, he stated. Even when a government wants to make needed changes, it may lack the authority to achieve them. The Church’s grave responsibility is to form competent laymen who will be able to train others, he declared.

Mexican Bishop Jose Alba Palacios of Tehuantepec said the Pope must be heeded regarding the problems of marriage and family life even when he does not use his full teaching authority. The bishop urged full freedom for scientific research which will prepare the way for the Church’s mature judgments.

Archbishop Paul Zoungrana of Ouagadougou, Upper Volta, in the name of 70 bishops of Africa and Brazil, spoke of the so-called third world. The council cannot afford to ignore this underdeveloped third group of nations, he said. Their population will double before the end of the century in all the poorer areas of the world. These countries lack land, investment and education. Competent experts should revise article 23 to make it pertinent to the underdeveloped nations, he said.

Through a mix up, Bernard Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, the Netherlands was called upon to speak on Article 25. He urged the council to show great concern for all who are persecuted for religion, especially under communism. But he did not think that the council should formally condemn Marxism, since this would be a simple repetition of what the pope and bishops have already done. A condemnation, he said, would touch atheistic materialism of the theoretical variety only, and this is not any more dangerous than atheistic materialism of the practical variety.

Instead, Cardinal Alfrink suggested, the council should encourage a dialogue between well-prepared Christians and individual Marxists. Such contacts, he said, would be like Christ’s nighttime conversation with Nicodemus.

Bishop Luigi Carli of Segni, Italy, presented the first report on the second chapter of the schema on the pastoral duties of bishops, confining his report to articles one and two.

He said that the commission had attempted to give a definition of a diocese based on its intrinsic elements, rather than on its territorial limits. This allowed formulation of a theology of the individual church and put the bishop’s pastoral activity in a brighter light. It also allows room for the so-called personal diocese, he said.

The report affirms the absolute independence of bishops from civil power and the Church’s full freedom to appoint bishops. However, the Holy See’s freedom to appoint bishops, as explained in the schema, does not exclude the possibility of concessions to various authorities.

Bishop Carli said that while the resignation of a bishop may be strongly recommended, it is not absolutely imposed. The schema allows room for competent authority’s suggestion that a bishop resign if he is unable to fulfill his duties.

Bishop Narciso Jubany Amau of Gerona, Spain, read the substance of the report on the schema’s article three (chapter two). He said that the commission agreed that coadjutor and auxiliary bishops should be preserved and that their authority should be consistent with their dignity as members of the episcopal college. They could be appointed either as vicars general, he said, or a new canonical position could be introduced, that of episcopal vicar.

Voting on the schema on bishops continued: Articles 11 to 18 on the duties of bishops: 2,040 yes, 22 no.

Articles 19 and 20 on freedom of bishops and their appointment: 2,055 yes, 8 no.

Article 21 on retirement of bishops: 1,986 yes, 57 no.

Articles 22 to 24 on diocesan boundaries: 1,979 yes, 12 no.

Articles 25 and 26 on coadjutor and auxiliary bishops: 1,982 yes, 22 no.

Articles 27 to 29 on organization of chanceries: 1,956 yes, 25 no.

Articles 30 to 32 on pastors, their duties and appointment and retirement: 1,950 yes, 14 no.

Articles 33 to 35 on religious: 1,801 yes, 172 no.

The council meeting opened with Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Clemens Chabukasansha of Fort Rosebery, Zambia. Archbishop Mariano Rossel y Arellana of Guatemala City enthroned the Gospel.

Patrick Riley
NCWC News Rome Correspondent

* * * *

It was stated at the U.S. bishops’ press panel following the council debate:

“For two and one-half years the Second Vatican Council has been considering the Church’s internal structure. Now in two and a half hours it has considered the central problem of our age — world poverty. Only the level of talks today saved this contrast from being too painful.”

This was the assessment of an English Mill Hill priest, Father Arthur McCormack, editor of World Justice magazine and a population expert.

He called for the Church to set up a “war cabinet” in the form of a new secretariat to wage “total war on poverty.” He suggested that a cardinal head the new office to give the program identity, just as Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J., embodies the entire work of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

Bishop Swanstrom, a panel guest following his council talk the same morning on poverty, urged going slow on forming such an organization as Father McCormack suggested.

Msgr. George G. Higgins, director of the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, pointed out that schema 13 sets a new pattern for forming Catholic organizations.

“It goes further than any other Catholic document I know of in promoting cooperation with the best-equipped existing organizations. It also sets down the principle that the Church should not start Catholic organizations unless they are absolutely necessary, and then by way of exception. Such a principle would put a damper on a situation which has befuddled the Church’s work for the past 100 years,” he said.

Referring to the relationship between birth control and world poverty, Father McCormack said:

“If you invented a [contraceptive] pill which would serve the millions who need or want it, you still would not solve the problem of world hunger or abolish its root causes.”

James Norris, after his council speech the same morning, told the panel audience that the American people need much education regarding social welfare programs. He said they must be convinced that not everything in foreign aid programs is bad or “money down a rat hole. No developing country ever developed in less than 50 years. We need to be patient,” he said.

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